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Rare in America, Easton Cobblers Find Everyone’s Glass Slipper

Oct 27, 2015 11:09AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Gail Greco

As we approached the shop window, I’d see him at-work, his silhouette outlined by leather Oxfords…tips worn to a fuzz, cordovan loafers turned lackluster with tarnished penny, and saddle shoes…black where the white is and white where the black should shine, and just a slew of other ailing footery on shelves piled up like Tinkertoys.

His teeth clenched metal tacks I was afraid would go down the wrong hatch, instead of on the shoe mending on a last. The shop door jingled a silver-bell welcome, but I had no time for slow-mo cordialities. I’d bolt from Mom’s hand, as he smiled at the sight of his granddaughter, making her way quickly for a hug, as much to save him from a life-threatening swallow as for the comforting embrace of his outstretched arms.

My grandfather, Frank Greco, repaired shoes, holes in soles, stitches undone, wobbly heels. And recently when I walked into Caldwell’s Shoe Repair on West Street in Easton, I felt his presence. “It’s the glues, the leathery scents that feel comforting,” Joyce DeLaurentis reminded me as she turned in her latest repair request. “My grandfather was a shoemaker in Abruzzo, Italy, so I feel at home here.”

 

Everyone’s Geppetto

It took me back home, too, to the Bronx. The gargantuan sewing machines, the whirling buffing wheels he used on everyday shoes and also for specialty footwear like slippers for the American Ballet Company. My grandfather’s co-workers at Capezio told me that he was loved by the dancers requesting his hand in the marriage of toe shoes customized to their feet. He also made shoes for Italian designers after immigrating to New York from Campobasso, Italy—and he branded his own haute couture. Sexy, strappy, fabric pumps…all with thick heels and soles—described as gaudy, certainly misunderstood.

“Why nobody wanna buya my shoes?” In the hopes his father would stop making them, my own father would repeatedly try to convince him: “They’re not in style, Pop. Women don’t like them.” I can imagine the line out Grandpa’s shop today for the fashion-forward platforms that would have made my budget-challenged grandfather a wealthy man. At Frank’s Shoe Repair in Parkchester, he practiced Euro-craftsmanship, keeping all of his customers en pointe—ironically unlike what he was able to do for himself. But first, let’s take a look at shoes today and whether anyone still cares to repair them anyway.

At Caldwell Shoe Repair Shop countless shoes are in line for a fix, attesting to a craft still practiced by the man at the counter—everyone’s Geppetto. “People’s shoes are personal; you’re as important as their doctor,” says cobbler Leroy Potter, Easton’s answer to the woodworker/shoemaker of Pinocchio fame. “We know customers by their face and feet; you feel them in your hands and that’s all you need to know.” And that’s why Shore residents will come a distance to Caldwell’s—like Doris Mason, who works in Chestertown, lives in Cambridge, and brings her needy shoes to Easton.

Leroy works at one of the few private shoe repair shops left in America. At 83 years old, the shop is one of some 7,000—down from 120,000 in the 1920s, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America, because cheaply-made shoes don’t last long enough to develop a worn-out heel, and because quality new shoe sales volumes are high so repairs are low. Caldwell and other area shops like Parole Shoe & Luggage Repair in Annapolis are throwbacks to a time when everyone repaired their shoes.

“Shoes become a part of a person no matter the quality or wear. Keep their favorite shoes going, keeps themselves going, too.” Leroy sees his customers’ spirits soar when he hands over shoes he’s just made new again.

So, is there really something symbiotic about saving soles and souls? “We see it all the time,” chimes in Ricky Caldwell, at the sewing machine repairing a handbag. His family started the business in 1932. “Our use of prime leather and listening to our customers assures that shoes do get another life,” Ricky says. “We charge as low as we can; the happier-person part is free.”

Affirming that well-maintained shoes go a long way, orthopedic surgeon and avid Caldwell customer Dr. Bill Sadlack stresses that worn shoes can adversely affect balance and alignment, and cause back and other problems. The D.C.-area doctor with a home in St. Michaels enjoys going to the shop to catch up on what’s going on in town. He isn’t alone. “In winter they have a fire going. You’ve got your coffee and just talk to anyone who walks in,” says Mary Kealy, retrieving a pair of burgundy heels repaired many times since she bought them in the 1970s. “You can wait for your shoes to be done if they can fit you in.”

Goody Two Shoes and Fairytales

Around the time Mary started to wear these trusty T-straps as new shoes, Leroy was at Easton High School. And today he repairs a lot of his former classmates’ and teachers’ shoes. Shoe repair shops are not the castle-like venues a Cinderella might drop a shoe in—either for a prince or for a repair. But you will find your glass slipper here.

Caldwell’s is small, cluttered—a real working shop with a stellar reputation. “It’s a magical place, a place of miracles,” believes Lady (Cameron) Cranworth, who lives in Suffolk, England, and visits her Eastern Shore home regularly, leaving her shoes only to those that the royal-by-marriage resident calls the Princes of Caldwell’s.

Not all customers and their shoes are the stuff of fairytales. “Some have special shoe needs, and there are those whose shoes have to work harder. Jay Grady depends on his hightops—bought 30 years ago at Easton’s Cherry Shoes—to still get him safely and steadily up the mountain on his annual pilgrimage in Colorado: “My shoes are my only friends out there. They need to support me and last as long as I do. These guys make that possible.”

 

Foothold on the Future

Some shoes remain unclaimed. “We hope the customers are ok and just forgot about them or moved out of town,” suggests Ricky. Shoes say a lot about a person. Before he was done taking care of everyone else’s feet through shoe repairs, Grandpa Greco had his own shoe issues of a much more serious nature. An arterial disease claimed his lower limbs. So I have always had an affinity for the cobblers in my life, who help others as Grandpa did; and for the sense of community they represent.

“Easton is a village, and it is this type of shop that makes it so,” affirms Joyce DeLaurentis. She works for the Maryland Rural (Community) Development Corporation, but is always asking Caldwell’s—tongue in cheek, at least I think—if she can have a job. Leroy gives her a reassuring shrug that she could take care of the souls, but says she will need some training to repair the soles. And, I would add, a CV that admits “leathery hands not yet developed but wanna-be.”

So, who will take care of our pedi must-haves in the future? If seven-year-old Brayden Fox has anything to do with it, he will make sure a shop like Caldwell’s is always around. His grandmother, Connie Tubman of Cambridge, walked into Caldwell’s with a pair of little black cowboy boots while I was there. “They’re my grandson’s,” she told me. “The other day when he was spit-shining them, he noticed the heel separating and he didn’t want new boots, so he asked me to take them to the ‘shoe man’ to be ‘cleaned and fixed properly.’ He feels like a tough dude in them, ya know,” prides Connie, “makes him confident. You should see him play hockey at the Easton Y!”

Already wise for his age, Brayden reminds us to take a second look at our feet and see what our shoes might be telling us. As long as there are shops in our area like Caldwell’s, we can look through our soles/souls and find that glass slipper in every mended step.